17 Wonderfully Fun Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter

Winter in Ottawa is a bucket list experience for any traveller visiting Canada. Not only is it home to the Rideau Canal, the longest natural ice rink in the world, but there are so many wonderful things to do in Ottawa in winter.

If you’re visiting Canada in the winter, be sure to stop in Ottawa to see the best of snowy Canadian terrain, indulge in a Winterlude celebration, and warm up with some famous Beavertails (don’t worry! No beavers were harmed to make your treat).

To be honest, a year or two ago I wouldn’t have hyped up a Canadian winter visit – especially not to Ottawa, a place I hadn’t been to since I was a kid.

Growing up in Canada, I never really appreciated our winters. I always found them cold and dreary.

Until I left and moved to countries that redefine “dreary weather” – especially Scotland. Then, I started to realize how cool Canadian winters really are.

I mean, what other country is literally full of snowmen for 3 months of the year? Where else can kids build full igloos and have snow fort wars throughout their childhoods?

Moving to Ottawa has helped me see the adult beauty in Canadian winters. I’ve been taking advantage of the things to do in Ottawa in winter to help me appreciate the wonder of a Canadian winter again.

Yes, it’ll be cold when you visit. But the magic of the lights around Ottawa and the amazing things to do will keep you feeling warm and bubbly.

If you do start to get chilly, check out the incredible things do in winter indoors – including some excellent bites to warm you from the inside.

So, what are the best things to do in Ottawa in winter?

How Bad is Ottawa Winter?

One of the first questions I always get when I tell people to visit in Canada in winter is “how bad is it?”

They’re referring to the temperatures, as the whole world has this misconception that Canada is an Arctic hellscape 24/7.

I can tell you that is most certainly not the case … for some of the year.

In winter, you should come to Canada prepared for the cold. If you’re from a Mediterranean or Caribbean climate, you can expect the temperatures to feel rather hell-ish.

But to be honest, you get used to them. Winters in Canada only seem traumatically cold if you haven’t experienced them before.

Thankfully, industry has caught up to the fact that cold sucks, so there are TONS of options for Canadian winter gear that will keep you nice and toasty.

Oddly, winters can actually feel warm because of the sun radiating off of the snow. It becomes brighter than even summer in Canada!

So don’t be put off by the idea of visiting Canada in winter solely because of some stereotypes.

Average Ottawa Winter Temperatures

Temperatures vary year to year in Canada. We have some winters where there is barely any snow, then we’ll have others where it seems like the snow piles never end.

Winter in Ottawa means any time from December to March. During this time, you’ll find averages in the negatives with higher chances of precipitation in the form of snow.

Average temperatures are:

  • December: -2C to -10C
  • January: -6C to -14C
  • February: -4C to -13C
  • March: 2C to -7C

Check the temperatures before you travel to Ottawa in the winter to ensure that you aren’t surprised by colder or warmer temperatures.

For example, in 2021, most of February had -20C days.

Best Time to Visit Ottawa

People often think spring is the best time to visit Ottawa because of the famous tulip festival.

But I actually prefer winter in Ottawa.

The city is at its best when the trees are crystalized by ice and the rivers are frozen over.

If you’re planning to visit in winter, I recommend stopping by in December for amazing Christmas lights. However, the best time to visit Ottawa is in February, when the Rideau Canal is open and the snowshoe trails are at their most snowy.

How Long Should You Spend in Ottawa?

You’ll need at least 3 days to properly explore Ottawa. In the winter, you’ll likely need larger breaks from outdoor activities. This means that you can expect to do one outdoor activity a day.

I recommend staying anywhere from 3-5 days to make the most of the fun things to do in Ottawa in the winter.

How to Get Around Ottawa in Winter

There are a number of ways to get around in Ottawa.

Ottawa is a very walkable city. However, in the winter walking is much less enjoyable in downtown Ottawa.

The buildings can create wind tunnels that leave your nose positively frost bitten. And the plows narrow the sidewalks, so it can be hard to get past other people without needing to stand in a snowdrift.

If you’re going more than a few blocks, it’s better to consider public transportation or to get a taxi.

Ottawa’s metro system is very efficient. Buy a metrocard for easy tap access on public transport that goes around the city. You’ll most likely use the buses, as the LRT (subway) doesn’t connect to as many tourist locations.

If you’d prefer private transportation, rent a car or use taxis/Ubers.

Driving in Canada in winter can be scary if you’ve never done it before. Us Canadians are used to guessing where the road lines are beneath the snow and know when to brake before the ABS kicks in.

If you’re not from here, this is an added stressor you don’t need in the winter.

Outdoor Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter

Hiking is one of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter. Image of Nina hiking through an arch in the Gatineau Parks trails.

1. Hiking In and Around Ottawa

Ottawa is surrounded by gorgeous hiking trails. Many visitors don’t think to look beyond the city centre of Parliament and Byward Market when they visit, so they miss the beauty of Ottawa’s nature.

Luckily, I hate cityscapes, so I actively hunt down hikes whenever I visit a place. The same was true when I first arrived in Ottawa in the winter of 2020.

Now, I’m not used to hiking in snow – because I’ve avoided winter for the last 3 years – so I had to do some extra research.

Because many of Ottawa’s hiking trails close in winter, your options are more limited. But there are still so many hikes to do in Ottawa in winter that even if you move here, like I recently did, you’ll be spoiled for choice.

Hiking is one of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter to get stunning views of the nature just outside of the city centre. With everything cloaked in a pristine layer of snow, the tree branches glistening in ice, and the stillness of the trails, hiking is the perfect winter escape.

Bonus? It’s free!

Best Spots to Hike in Ottawa in Winter:

2. Snowshoeing through the Wilderness

Snowshoeing is a uniquely Canadian activity.

Sure, other countries do it too, but there’s something about snowshoeing in Canada that just feels like the ultimate winter Canadian experience.

Plus, it’s a fun thing to do in Ottawa in winter that you can brag about when you go home.

With the amount of snow we get during winter in Ottawa, snowshoes are a great investment. You’ll find constant uses for them – sometimes even just to get to the grocery store before the plows are out!

It’s also a great way to make use of hiking trails that aren’t regularly maintained. You’ll be able to walk on top of the knee-deep snow, rather than sinking into it.

I got really into snowshoeing this year up in Muskoka and need to get myself a pair in Ottawa so I can stop getting snow in my boots every time I over-enthusiastically head onto a trail only to sink down to my knees. (Seriously, snow pants are essential to pack for winter in Canada.)

If you don’t want to invest in your own pair, you can rent snowshoes throughout Ottawa or at the Gatineau Park Visitor Centre in Chelsea.

Check out Kunstadt Sports or Nakkertok Nordic to rent them from stores. Alternatively, you can find pairs for rent on Ruckify.

Best Spots to Snowshoe in Ottawa in Winter:

People skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa during winter

3. Skating on an Outdoor Rink

Ottawa’s main winter activity is skating. Thanks to the Rideau Canal, the longest natural ice rink in the world, skating is one of the best known things to do in Ottawa in winter.

Ottawa gets cold enough in winter for the entire Rideau Canal to freeze into a 7.8km skating rink that’s free to use.

You can skate from Parliament to Dows Lake at the other end of the city, getting stunning views of the city skyline as you go.

Stop for Beavertails along the way or grab a hot chocolate to warm up during your skate. You can hop off at major streets along the way.

Be careful for locals like me who use the canal to get to work, pick up groceries, and avoid the city traffic.

But the canal isn’t the only place to skate around the city. Ottawa has a myriad of skating options: from outdoor rinks in the city to trails through the forests.

They’d a great free thing to do in Ottawa in winter, allowing you plenty of places to make use of your skates.

If you don’t want to bring your own or buy a new pair, you can rent skates around Ottawa. I recommend buying a used pair from Kunstadt Sports or Play It Again Sports if you’re going to rent them for a few hours, as the price evens out.

If you’re planning to skate, don’t get your adventure sports travel insurance!

Best Spots to Skate in Ottawa in Winter:

4. Skiing/Snowboarding Down the Mountains

Skiing is one of the most fun things to do in Ottawa in winter – well, anywhere in winter really.

Why else would we get piles of snow if not to race down it on mountains??

I’m going to be saying “skiing” here because that’s the one I do (I have no balance so snowboarding was never an option), but to be clear: both are equally awesome winter activities in Ottawa.

So whether you prefer one board or two, you’ll be able to enjoy racing down a mountain in Ottawa.

Now, Ottawa isn’t as big of a ski destination as Whistler out in Vancouver, but it has some very fun hills.

You can find hills for every level around the city. Most ski hills also have snowshoe trails, cross country skiing options, and places to go tubing (because an inner tube on snow is genuinely one of my favourite things to do in winter, even though I always sort of feel like I’m going to die).

Or, drive a little further to Mont Tremblant in Quebec for the best skiing in Eastern Canada.

Don’t bother packing your skis and wasting precious space. Instead, rent some at the hills. But do bring your own layers and jackets (find out what I recommend for surviving a Canadian winter in my packing list).

Best Spots to Ski in Ottawa in Winter:

5. Cross Country Ski Along Forest Trails

If downhill skiing isn’t your thing, why not try cross country skiing?

Cross country skiing is so popular in Ottawa, you’ll literally see people walking down Bank St. or past Parliament with their skis draped over their shoulders.

I’m still not sure if they needed them to get to Downtown or if they’re on their way somewhere else with them, but every weekend I see at least 4 people ready to hit the trails.

Cross country skiing is the best low-impact outdoor thing to do in Ottawa in winter. You’ll be able to go through more trails in Gatineau Park (with a cross country skiing permit) and explore more trails around Ottawa itself.

If you have your own skis, then it’s a free Ottawa winter activity, too!

I think cross country skiing is fantastic.

It’s easy to do, less terrifying than flying down a mountain (because I have no real knowledge of how to ski, that’s basically how I do it), and reminds me of the weird indoor cross country skiing machine we had in my house growing up (and still do, although none of us cross country ski).

Rent a pair and hit the trails for the opportunity to see more of Ottawa’s wilderness in the winter.

Best Spots to Cross Country Ski in Ottawa in Winter:

6. Go Tobogganing

Do you want to feel like a little kid again? Then tobagganing is one of the most fun things to do in Ottawa in winter.

There’s nothing like the thrill of a sled or inner tube flying down a hill semi-uncontrollably.

Tobogganing or sledding is a classic Canadian winter activity. You’ll find kids (and adults) making use of every hill around Ottawa after a good snowfall. They’ll be red faced and grinning while they barrel down hills ranging from minor lumps on the ground to actual mountain sides.

Although people use random hills, it’s generally safer to use the hills that Ottawa’s National Capital Commission sets aside for tobogganing.

They ensure these areas are safe, that you won’t fly into traffic (which was a common threat at the hill we used to use growing up in Toronto), and that people won’t unsuspectingly walk by while you tear down the hill.

There are many types of sleds to use in winter. I’ve always loved the magic carpets that are now deemed hugely unsafe. Check out sports rentals around the city to find the type of toboggan you prefer.

Best Spots to Toboggan in Ottawa in Winter:

Nina taking advantage of one of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter at Lansdowne Christmas Lights. Posing in front of a Christmas tree facing away from the camera.
Nina taking advantage of one of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter at Lansdowne Christmas Lights. Posing in front of a Christmas tree in profile.

7. Spot the City Christmas Lights

My first wander in Ottawa in 2020 led me to Lansdowne Christmas Market where there were dozens of beautiful Christmas light displays, including some you may have seen on my Instagram.

But they weren’t the only Christmas lights I encountered.

There’s something about Christmas lights that just makes the cold of winter feel so much warmer. You bundle up and explore to find them, bright against the far too early nights, around the city.

Christmas light hunting is an essential free thing to do in Ottawa in winter.

Lace up your boots or warm up your car to find the best lights around the city.

Be sure to bring your camera to snap some Christmassy pics for the gram!

Nina posing on a NOEL Christmas lights sign

Best Spots to See Christmas Lights in Ottawa in Winter:

8. Try Your Hand at Dog Sledding in Ottawa

As a dog lover, this was easily made the list of one of the best things to do in Ottawa. In fact, it’s on my bucket list to go dog sledding in Nunavut.

Ottawa isn’t Nunavut, but it’ll do in a pinch!

Dog sledding is a great activity for all ages. You can go alone, with friends, or with your whole family.

You can find dog sledding tours from 15 minutes long to full day experiences that will make you feel like you can do the Iditarod (you can’t and no one should, but that’s beside the point).

Plan a full day adventure or a weekend away by staying at their lodge and making use of their snowshoe trails, too.

Best Companies to Dog Sled with in Ottawa:

9. Park Omega

If you’ve come to Canada looking for moose, bears or wolves, you’ll want to visit Park Omega.

Park Omega is a wildlife centre for Canadian animals.

You’ll find native animals in this drive-through experience. It’s sort of like the lion safari parks, except the animals aren’t in a completely unnatural environment.

The wildlife centre focuses on promoting cohabitation amongst the animals naturally meant to live in the Quebec region.

Drive through this 12km path and encounter 20 species of animals, including deer who will come up to your window for treats.

Don’t take your rental car though: the deer have been known to butt cars. They offer a bus for people who don’t want to risk their cars.

You can also experience Park Omega’s snowshoe trails, new ice rink, Indigenous heritage experiences, and maple sugar shack when you visit.

The ultimate Parc Omega experience is staying in their wolf lodges: lodges with a glass wall into the wolf sanctuary.

Find out more about Park Omega.

10. Winterlude

The most unique things to do in Ottawa in winter come from Winterlude, Ottawa’s annual winter festival. It’s a great reason to brave the Ottawa cold in February for some free winter activities.

Winterlude typically occurs in the first 3 weeks of February, with most events on the weekends.

Technically, Ottawa’s Rideau Canal Skateway is a part of the Winterlude Festival, although it’s usually open longer than the festival.

We used to come to Ottawa to visit my Aunt during Winterlude when I was a kid. I still remember running through the ice sculpture displays, eating far too much maple taffy (find out what maple taffy is in my guide on What to Eat in Canada). We used to skate along the canal and get warm Beavertails (I’m genuinely not sure how my mom handled us with that much sugar in our systems).

There were unique exhibits every year at the local museums, concerts outdoors, and large groundhog mascots (called Ice Hogs) that wandered the streets.

It’s a hugely entertaining as a kid, and even more so as an adult when you don’t crash from all the sugar before noon.

You can also enjoy Winterlude races throughout the city: a cross-country ski race in Gatineau Park, snowshoe races, “fat bike” races, a 5km run (aka. the Winterman Race), and ice dragon boat racing. There’s even a bed race (with what are essentially decked-out gurneys)!

Find out more about Winterlude this year and why you should visit.

Top Winterlude Experiences:

  • Ice Sculpture Competition
  • Skating on the Rideau Canal
  • Watching the Cross Country Skiing Race
  • Watching the Ice Dragon Boat Races
  • Eating Your Weight in Beavertails
View of Chateau Laurier and war memorial in winter with a blue sky

11. Explore Downtown Ottawa

I’ve gone over a lot of specific things to do in Ottawa in winter, but I can’t omit the easiest thing to do: wander Ottawa’s downtown.

I fully believe that wandering a city is the best way to get to know it. It’s why I do so many free walking tours when I go abroad.

Make sure to wander downtown Ottawa to visit these highlights:

  • Byward Market
  • Parliament Hill
  • Chateau Laurier
  • Confederation Park
  • The Rideau Canal
  • The National War Memorial

If you want a guided walk, check out the great free tours on GPS My City for Ottawa.

12. Nordik Spa

Technically Nordik Spa is an indoor/outdoor experience, but since the best thing to do at Nordik Spa is outdoors, it fits better into the best outdoor things to do in Ottawa in winter than the indoor.

Nordik Spa is the largest spa in North America, with a range of indulgences from a restaurant, indoor and outdoor relaxation areas, a lounge, saunas, a beer garden, and – the best thing to do there – outdoor baths.

Make sure to plan some extra time around your treatments – from massages to body scrubs – to take advantage of the outdoor baths. These hot and cold pools are perfect for pampering yourself, getting over jetlag, and relaxing after all of the winter sports you’ve done in Ottawa so far.

Treat yourself this winter in Ottawa with a thermal package at Nordik Spa to unwind, warm up, and indulge.

Find out more about Nordik Spa’s rates and operating hours here.

Indoor Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter

Visiting museums is one of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter. Image of Museum of History's Indigenous totem pole exhibit.

1. Museums

Ottawa is Canada’s capital. It’s got a wealth of history to share with visitors.

Which is one of the reasons downtown is so packed with amazing museums.

Seriously, outside of the ROM in Toronto (because I remember digging up dino bones as a kid there), Ottawa is home to my favourite museums in Canada.

On cold, snowy days, take a break from the best outdoor things to do in Ottawa in winter and enjoy the warmth of a beautiful building full of information.

There are so many types of museums that you’ll be sure to find out you enjoy. From military history to natural history to agriculture.

The best part: they’re budget-friendly!

The city offers free admission to the museums in the evenings to help make learning accessible to everyone. So if you don’t feel like a walk outdoors before dinner, why not wander a museum?

I’ve included the dates the museums are free below.

Best Museums in Ottawa:

  • Canadian Museum of Nature (Free 5-8pm on Thursday)
  • Canadian Museum of History (Free 5-8pm on Thursday)
  • Canada Agriculture and Food Museum (Free 4-5pm Daily)
  • Canadian War Museum (Free 5-8pm on Thursday)
  • Canada Science and Technology Museum (Free 5-8pm Daily)
  • Canada Aviation and Space Museum (Free 5-8pm Daily)

Canadian art isn’t as well known as it should be. We have numerous famous painters (well, famous within Canada) that are brilliant to view.

Head to the National Gallery of Canada to view the best art collection in Ottawa. You’ll find paintings, drawing, sculpture, and photos of Canadian art interspersed with American and European collections.

Be sure to check out the Group of Seven paintings in the gallery and representations of Indigenous art that you won’t find anywhere else.

The gallery is free to visit from 5-8pm on Thursdays.

View of parliament hill with the eternal flame burning in front of parliament.

3. Tour Parliament Hill

You can’t exactly visit Ottawa without going to Parliament Hill. It’s an iconic Ottawa landmark that must be on your list of free things to do in Ottawa winter.

Wander by for a photo or take a free guided tour of the place where our government is run. You can tour the House of Commons or the Senate to see different areas of our government in action.

I’m not big on politics, but I love the parliament buildings. They’re stunning works of architecture in our modern country that are really worth visiting.

Reserve a spot online to take your free tour. Do so early, as they fill up fast.

Notre Dame cathedral interior blue roof shot

4. Notre Dame

No, I’m not sending you to Paris in the middle of my Ottawa winter post. We have a Notre Dame, too!

It’s a gorgeous church with high vaulted blue ceilings and towering stain glass windows. The church is a National Historic Site of Canada for good reason.

Take a break from your outdoor explorations this winter to visit the free site to visit.

5. Play Some Board Games

Ok, stay with me. I’m not telling you to sit in your hotel room and play board games for hours on end.

Ottawa is home to some amazing gaming cafes where you can indulge in board games, pinball, and snacks all at once.

Check out Loft Board Game Lounge and House of Targ for some epic indoor fun.

The Loft is my favourite spot to get some amazing food and hang out with my friends. The food is to die for!

Where to Stay in Ottawa

Learn more about Ottawa neighbourhoods to decide where to stay in the city.

Where to Eat in Ottawa

Having trouble deciding what to eat during winter in Ottawa? Check out some of the best eats in the city!

  • Beaver Tails
  • Afternoon Tea at Chateau Laurier
  • Byward Market Stalls
  • Le Moulin de Provence pastries
  • Thimblecakes for cupcakes
  • Dumpling Bowl for excellent dumplings
  • Whalesbone for a seafood feast
  • Elgin St Diner for breakfast food
  • Social Thai for delicious pad thai

Best Tours of Ottawa

Looking for a guided tour experience this winter in Ottawa? Check out my favourites below!

Renting a Car

To get around Ottawa in winter, you’ll need to rent a car.

I recommend using Discover Cars to quickly compare rental options.

Their comparison tool does the homework for you, so there’s no need to have up 10+ tabs trying to figure out which company is the most affordable. Actually, you can save up to 70% using their tool!

FAQs About Ottawa in Winter

What is there to do in Ottawa in February?

There is so much to do in Ottawa in February! The best thing to do is to skate the Rideau Canal, which usually opens in February for its short 2-3 week period every year.
You can also check out the amazing winter hiking and snowshoeing trails, check out a nearby cozy cabin, or wander around downtown Ottawa if you want to be outside. Warm up at Nordik spa in their lovely hot pools.
The best Ottawa winter activities indoors are definitely visiting the many museums and hanging out at a board game cafe.

What can you do in Ottawa for free in the winter?

Skate on the Rideau Canal or other outdoor rinks (if you have skates)
Tour Parliament
Visit museums on their free evenings
Visit the art gallery on its free evening
Wander downtown Ottawa

Does it snow in Ottawa Canada?

Yes! It definitely snows in Ottawa in winter. It’s one of the snowiest cities in the southern area of Canada, only trumped by Montreal.
Ottawa routinely gets feet of snow. It accumulates on plow piles on the side of the road and on trails where it is never cleared away.
You’ll definitely need to pack your snow boots to visit Ottawa in winter!

Is Ottawa colder than Toronto?

Yes! Ottawa is almost always a few degrees more extreme than Toronto, whether it is hotter in the summer or colder in the winter.
In 2021, most of our winter days were at least 4-5 degrees colder than Toronto, with a heavier wind chill.
Toronto is warmer because it is further south and has Lake Ontario to help regulate its temperatures.

What is there to do indoors in Ottawa in winter?

There’s so much fun stuff to do inside in winter in Ottawa!
Go to a museum
Play games at a board game cafe
Check out local Canadian artists
Tour parliament
Visit the Notre Dame cathedral

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Ottawa Travel Planning Guide

🚑 Should I buy Ottawa travel insurance?

100% YES! — There’s a misconception that Canada has “free healthcare” for everyone. Nope! Only Canadians. So you’ll need to get travel insurance to visit Ottawa. I recommend this one.

💧Can you drink the tap water in Ottawa?

Yes – ish — While you can technically drink the tap water in Ottawa, as a local I don’t recommend it. Old hotels especially can have some nasty things in their pipes. Instead, get a filtered water bottle. (Read more)

🚙💨 Do I need to rent a car in Ottawa?

Yes — Renting a car in Ottawa is one of the best ways to get around! You’ll be able to see more of the city and beyond, like the epic hiking trails. I recommend Discover Cars for the cheapest rates possible.

📲 Do I need to know French in Ottawa?

Nope! — The primary language of Ottawa is English. While French is also spoken and on some signs, you can easily get by without knowing any French. (Read more)

🏩 What’s the best way to book my Ottawa accommodations?

For Ottawa hotels, Booking is the best site. If you’re considering an Ottawa Airbnb, don’t forget to also check VRBO, which is often cheaper than Airbnb. My #1 hotel recommendation in Ottawa is the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.

✈️ What’s the best site to buy Ottawa flights?

For finding cheap Ottawa flights, I recommend Skyscanner. You can even set a price alert to find out when flights are on sale.

🎫 Do I need a Visa for Ottawa?

Likely Not — U.S. and most European Passport holders don’t need a Visa to visit Canada.

📍 Where is Ottawa? And what’s nearby?

Ottawa is the capital city of Canada, located in Ontario. It’s right on the border of Quebec. It’s about 2 hours from Mont Tremblant, 3 hours from Montreal, or 5 hours from Toronto. You can take a road trip to get to other places or fly.

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